Who Is In Charge

How a Memphis lawmaker quietly passed a law that may have kept your school from state takeover

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari sits at ease in principal Monekea Smith’s office at Hamilton High School, down the road from Graceland, across the street from Akbari’s grandmother’s house — and nearly four hours and a world away from the state Capitol, where she spends much of her time.

When Smith speaks with a school colleague on her walkie-talkie and signs off “Love Hamilton,” Akbari instinctively offers up the appropriate response: “Absolutely!”

Only someone familiar with the storied Memphis school and its culture would know that “Love Hamilton, Absolutely!” is Hamilton’s longstanding motto, emblazoned on the school’s walls and often exchanged by alumni.

Akbari has both a deep knowledge of the community she represents and a deep appreciation for policy, enabling her to straddle two worlds and connect them in a way that leads to meaningful change.

“If you cannot identify with people or with a problem, then it’s difficult for you to create policy that can solve it,” Akbari says later, explaining how she’s been able to find impactful legislative solutions to public education challenges in Memphis.

In the last five years, the legislature has passed a slew of laws targeting the state’s lowest performing schools, many of which are in Memphis.

Against that backdrop this spring, Akbari shepherded into law a policy change that ended up protecting 10 struggling-but-improving schools from state intervention. It also brought clarity to the complex and often contentious school turnaround process under the Tennessee Achievement School District.

In so doing, the Memphis Democrat managed to build consensus among lawmakers and state leaders, including founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, in favor of the school turnaround game-changer.

“Her just reaching out initially and having a conversation before it even got to the point of a bill was great,” Barbic said. “That doesn’t always happen.”

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

At age 31, Akbari (her name rhymes with blackberry) is the youngest member of the legislature and also an attorney. She has quickly risen to become one of the legislature’s most effective voices on educational issues — despite rarely raising her voice in House Education meetings or on the House floor.

In addition to holding public office, she works for Akbari Corp., started in 1981 by her Iranian-born father and Memphian mom. Most of Akbari’s mother’s family attended Hamilton. She jokes that someone from her family graduated from the school every year during the 1970s.

Like many of the schools in Akbari’s district, Hamilton is a priority school, meaning it ranks academically among the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. Hamilton also is part of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the local district’s own school turnaround initiative.

During her recent school visit, Akbari and Hamilton’s principal enjoyed an instant rapport based on mutual acquaintances and a fluency in Memphis institutions, especially schools. Because of Akbari’s roots, she understands Memphians’ intense loyalty to neighborhood schools, and why the suggestion of state intervention unleashes feelings of confusion, frustration and even anger.

Akbari herself is a product of Memphis-area schools. She attended Chimney Rock Elementary, Cordova Middle and Cordova High schools before receiving her college degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a law degree from St. Louis University. But she always knew that one day she would return home. In high school, she had participated in the Memphis Challenge program encouraging students with high ACT scores to settle eventually in Memphis to serve their city.

Because of her 12 years in Memphis City and legacy Shelby County Schools, Akbari has a nuanced view of public education.

“I’m a product of the city and county schools, and I know what public schools can do,” she says. “It will be a disservice if we don’t invest in these schools.”

She also knows firsthand the schools’ weaknesses.

“When I got to Wash U, I did not feel as prepared as other students. I had a high ACT score, a high GPA, but other students were a little bit more prepared,” she recalls.

Akbari didn’t expect to become politically involved at such a young age. But the House seat in her district suddenly opened up when longtime Rep. Lois DeBerry died in 2013. Then 29, Akbari claimed 89 percent of the vote to defeat an independent candidate. She successfully retained the seat the following year in a regular election.

During her campaigns, the state’s new Achievement School District was a top concern among constituents worried about the state encroaching on neighborhood schools, even those that are chronically underperforming. Because the ASD had not been in existence during her school years, Akbari had to do her homework.

One of the schools in her district, Alcy Elementary, was being considered for ASD charter conversion because of low performance, or to be closed by Shelby County Schools because of declining enrollment. However, when Akbari visited Alcy and talked with the principal, she saw a school that was improving — and test scores bore that out.

“If a school is on the priority list, but they’re making changes, it’s not worth it to take them through the stress of turnaround,” she said. “That’s not a good use of  the ASD’s resources.”

Akbari drafted a bill that would let a school try its own turnaround, rather than being taken over by the statewide district, if the school received top-level TVAAS value-added growth scores of 4 or 5, replaced the principal, or was designated a community school that offers non-academic services such as physical and mental health services.

School motto "Love Hamilton Absolutely!" adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
School motto “Love Hamilton Absolutely!” adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.

Armed with feedback from her Memphis constituents and Shelby County school board members, she workshopped the bill with Barbic and the Tennessee Department of Education. She knew if they gave the nod, she’d get other lawmakers’ support.

“If I don’t get something people are willing to support, then I’m going to be failing at the starting line,” she said. “I could file something to prove a point or raise awareness, but it’s not going to be able to pass.”

The bill eventually was streamlined to include the TVAAS provision. And, of the 22 bills filed in 2015 aimed at changing ASD operations, it was the only one to pass. In fact, it cleared both chambers unanimously.

The seemingly innocuous bill has had a surprisingly tangible impact in the state’s two largest cities. Because of the new law, when the ASD unveiled its newest targets this fall for takeover and conversion, seven schools in Memphis and three in Nashville were no longer eligible and instead were given time to improve on their own.

“It is tremendous,” said Shante Avant, a Shelby County Schools board member of the new law, which she said gives local educators and students a sense of empowerment. “It means to them that they have come together as a community and made things happen.”

Barbic said the law has helped state turnaround efforts, too — by making the criteria for state intervention clearer. That, in turn, has made the ASD more transparent.

“Before, we could explain all we wanted and I think [the criteria for turnaround] was objective, but folks felt it lacked transparency,” he said. “Now, it’s clear. It’s black and white.”

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.